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Redefining Bigotry - And Distorting the Truth

Ironically, the more progress is made in reducing prejudice, the more prejudice seems to remain and even grow, at least if news media stories, minority group reports, and lawsuits are any indication. I say "seems" because the prejudice noted does not always exist. Or if it does, it is not necessarily to the degree alleged - and certainly not to the extent found in prior generations.

How else to explain that although prejudice against every American minority group has declined in all major arenas of life - housing, employment, education, and public accommodations - it is nevertheless discussed as if no progress has taken place, or as if conditions are worse than ever before? To suggest otherwise is to invite scorn or even the accusation of being prejudiced.

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Still, seeing prejudice where it isn't doesn't necessarily mean being paranoid, but rather being influenced by a number of factors:

* The very success in reducing prejudice has magnified its remaining forms and degrees.

* More minority groups - racial, ethnic, religious - are speaking out against prejudice directed at them.

* Other groups have adopted the language and strategies of minority groups, especially African-Americans, to describe their situation.

* Group identity has become politicized, so that being recognized as a minority - and especially a discriminated-against minority - helps gain preferential treatment, as well as win civic-rights law cases.

* The words "prejudice" and "discrimination" are being redefined. They no longer simply denote a psychological, emotional, and/or behavioral hostility or invidious treatment of people because of their group background. They also denote an absence of preferential treatment.

HOW did such changes come about? Before the race revolution, being a victim of prejudice generally meant being denied the constitutional rights of equal protection, as well as being stigmatized, segregated, or excluded because of one's group affiliation. It was to prevent such treatment that reformers enacted legislation to ensure that each person receives fair treatment and equal opportunity, regardless of his or her race, religion, or national origin.

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Yet, in spite of the reforms, resentment grew over the slow pace of progress, particularly by younger and more militant generations of activists. Newer definitions of prejudice and discrimination came into being, claiming that bigotry existed wherever minority members were absent in the labor force; underrepresented in proportion to their local, state, or national population; had lower test results, graduation rates, or incomes; and, most recently, wherever there wasn't a diversity of group members - racially, ethnically, religiously, or sexually.

The solution to such bigotry was no longer in ensuring equal opportunity for all individuals, but rather in creating laws, processes, and institutions that guarantee equal, proportional, or "quota-ized" results, such as preferential group treatment, contract and employment set-asides for certain groups, race- and ethnic-based electoral gerrymandering, and amendments to the Constitution allowing for group rights and representation.

As a result of such thinking, anyone acknowledging progress in minority life is seen as undermining the group's unity, power, and socioeconomic advancement. And so, for example, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and women will rarely acknowledge, at least in public, any absolute or relative achievements by their members - and they will criticize those who do.

Minority group leaders also will rarely acknowledge (except among themselves) that being victimized doesn't necessarily prevent them from having significant numbers of achievers, such as with Armenians, Asian Indians, Chinese, Cubans, Greeks, Huguenots, Japanese, Jews, Koreans, Quakers, Mormons, and West Indians.

Not only do redefinitions of bigotry distort the truth - e.g., that there is less than ever before - but the new definitions detract attention from the social problems that affect both minority and majority group members, such as quality education, health insurance, housing, jobs, crime, etc. They also inhibit the formation of broad coalitions needed to resolve problems. And lastly, they provoke rivalries and tensions between all groups over who is or isn't being victimized or favored.

* Philip Perlmutter is the author of "Divided We Fall: A History of Ethnic, Religious, and Racial Prejudice in America" (Iowa State University Press) and "The Dynamics of American Ethnic, Religious, and Racial Group Life" (Praeger Publishers).

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